Much like the Bucks, the Phoenix Suns are off to a surprising start this season. Unlike the Bucks, it’s been surprising in a positive way.
Through 31 games, Phoenix sits at 19-12, good for seventh place in the hyper-competitive Western Conference. If the Suns were in the East (due to an unprecedented geographical catastrophe), they would hold a two game lead over Atlanta for third place.
Much of Phoenix’s success can be credited to the emergence of its unconventional backcourt. After acquiring Eric Bledsoe from the Clippers this summer, Phoenix opted to keep incumbent point guard Goran Dragic. But instead of bringing him off the bench, new coach Jeff Hornacek has played Dragic and Bledsoe together, despite their lack of size. At just 6’3” and 6’1”, respectively, the duo is a bit of a liability against teams with larger backcourts (i.e. the Bucks), but the pairing has produced unexpected success.
Though Dragic, one of the league’s best passers, has seen his assists numbers fall, both players’ numbers are remarkably similar:
Bledsoe: 18.0 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 5.9 apg, 1.39 spg, 49% FG, 20.6 PER
Dragic: 18.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 5.8 apg, 1.54 spg, 49% FG, 20.2 PER
The backcourt success is not the only reason the Suns are soaring this season. Markieff Morris has also been a pleasant surprise in his third NBA season, as has Gerald Green, the team’s third-leading scorer. After averaging 8.2 points and 4.8 rebounds last season, Morris has upped his production to 12.2 points and 6.2 boards, while increasing his field goal percentage from 41 percent to 48 percent.
Green has been a reclamation project, of sorts – a microcosm of his entire career. The former first-round pick with loads of potential fell out of the league in 2009 but resurfaced with the Nets two seasons later. After a frustrating year in Indiana, Green was sent to Phoenix as part of the Luis Scola deal this summer. He’s enjoying arguably his best season as a pro, averaging 13.0 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.5 assists while shooting 38 percent from three. Green’s transformation into a three-point threat is impressive. He attempts an average of 6.6 threes per game (making 2.5), a staggering number considering his previous career-high was 3.5.
Phoenix enters Saturday’s contest having won 10 of its last 13, but the Suns, playing without Bledsoe, fell Thursday against Memphis 99-91. Phoenix was outrebounded 59-40 and shot just 41.1 percent from the field compared to the Grizzlies’ 57.1. Bledsoe suffered a sprained knee Monday against the Clippers and will miss at least a week of action. Green is expected to start in his place, as was the case Thursday.
Milwaukee has battled through a slew of injuries this season, but the only active player currently on the shelf (excluding Zaza Pachula and Carlos Delfino, who are both out with longer-term foot injuries) is John Henson. The rangy forward is dealing with a lower leg injury but hopes to return for Tuesday’s game against the Bulls.
The Bucks are coming off of a loss to the Jazz on Thursday in a matchup of bottom-feeders in each conference. Milwaukee remains the only team in the league yet to win consecutive games this season. The Bucks are a league-worst 7-25 but remain just six games out of the eighth seed, a dangerously slim gap for a fan base dead set on pairing Parker or Wiggins with Giannis Antetokounmpo next season.
What to look for:
– With Bledsoe out, Gerald Green will step into the starting lineup, creating an athleticism-packed matchup at shooting guard. Green is arguably the best leaper in the league, while Antetokounmpo is no slouch himself, as evidenced here:
– After a string of impressive games, Brandon Knight struggled mightily Thursday, scoring just eight points on 3-of-12 shooting. He’ll be matched up with a less-than-stellar defender in Dragic and should have an opportunity to work in the paint, as Phoenix lacks a true rim protector.
– O.J. Mayo has played a combined 27 minutes over the past two games and appears to have permanently lost his starting spot. Expected to be the team’s offensive leader, Mayo has struggled with inconsistency and shot just 37.3 percent from the field in the month of December.
– Perhaps/definitely the most intriguing storyline Saturday is Slava Kravstov facing off against his former team. The Ukrainian big man joined the Milwaukee roster as a throw-in with the Brandon Knight deal and was shipped to Phoenix along with Ish Smith in exchange for Caron Butler. Did Slava ever suit up for Milwuakee? Well, no. But expect sparks to fly nonetheless. Kravtsov has appeared in just 14 games this season, averaging 3.4 minutes per game.
PG – Brandon Knight
SG – Luke Ridnour
SF – Giannis Antetokounmpo
PF – Ersan Ilyasova
C –Larry Sanders
PG – Goran Dragic
SG – Gerald Green
SF – P.J. Tucker
PF – Channing Frye
C – Miles Plumlee
Points: Knight (14.7), Dragic (18.9)
Rebounds: Henson (8.0), Plumlee (9.2)
Assists: Knight (4.4), Dragic (5.9)
Blocks: Henson (2.3), Plumlee (1.9)
Rankings (per game)
Scoring: 29th (92.5)
Rebounding: 26th (41.4)
Assists: 18th (20.6)
Points allowed: 15th (100.1)
Scoring: 11th (103.0)
Rebounding: 13th (43.2)
Assists: 29th (19.0)
Points allowed: 16th (100.5)